Antony Tudor (1908-1987) believed that ballet could and should engage the general public, not just an elite group. Throughout his career as a choreographer, he chose universal themes such as death, societal oppression and the nuances of personal relationships, exploring emotions at a primal level.
Antony Tudor is undoubtedly regarded as one of the greatest choreographers of all time. His body of work is only equaled in scope with the improbable journey he undertook to achieve this greatness. What follows does not pretend to be an exhaustive history, but rather selected anecdotes to give the reader a peek inside the life of one of the most creative forces in twentieth-century dance.
Tudor was born William Cook on April 4, 1908. He grew up in the hardscrabble neighborhood of Finsbury, a suburb east of London. His father was a butcher at the famous Smithfield meat market in nearby Islington, which his mother helped manage. Neither parent had any connection to the arts, typical of most working-class families of that region and era, but music would still play an important part of Tudor’s childhood.
Tudor’s mother played the piano and gave him lessons as a youngster. This would prove to be an invaluable skill for the budding choreographer later in life. While Tudor did not have an upbringing filled with the arts, his early memories of his father taking him to music hall shows (a form of vaudeville in London) left an indelible impression on the boy. He stated that his exposure to these performances left him “completely stage-struck. Forever and ever." Perhaps foreshadowing his future career, Tudor remembered creating dances with his siblings at the age of six, using the marble slab counters of the fish shop next door as a stage and cutting a little hole in the lace curtains for a spotlight. A wealthy uncle paid for an excellent education, allowing Tudor two years of study beyond the then traditional age of fourteen. During his time as a schoolboy, Tudor accidentally discovered ballet. Riding on the top of a double-decker tram on the way to physical education fields, Tudor noticed a large studio window level with his view. Inside, he saw young people “doing the strangest things.” It turned out to be a typical dance studio that taught a little bit of everything, including drama. Tudor signed up, but apparently found the classes “dreadful” due to this smorgasbord approach.
Soon after starting these classes, Tudor began spending his evenings working as an actor with small Dramatic Societies he would later credit as an influence on his choreography. Tudor’s role as Malvolio in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night at the age of 18 and other characters would appear in his first ballet, Cross-Garter’d. As he progressed through bigger and better dramatic societies he was exposed to his first dance class on partnering, where the foundation of his philosophy was born. During a dance scene in which he played the devil Tudor came to realize how much he loved applause. Although acting was an appealing career to Tudor, he lacked a confident “voice,” setting his path towards becoming a dancer.
Tudor’s first exposure to professional ballet did not come until 1926 or 1927, when he first saw The Diaghilev Ballet Russes. This Russian company would later introduce him to the great Anna Pavlova, who enchanted Tudor and solidified his destiny to enter the world of dance.
Tudor continued to study dance and perform as a way to learn choreography from the inside out. His secret desire to become a choreographer came to light when he left his job at the Meat Market to become secretary of Rambert’s Ballet Club and insisted his contract include a provision for him to create ballets. Marie Rambert agreed and Tudor’s career as a choreographer began.
In 1931 Tudor created his first ballet, Cross-Garter'd, which used the familiar characters from a play he had acted in, Shakespeare's Twelfth Night. He put a lot of pressure on himself to do well as he wanted to secure a second opportunity to choreograph. He accomplished that goal easily and his path towards becoming a choreographer was cleared.
From 1931 to 1935 Tudor choreographed at least 11 works, including his first real success, Lysistrata in 1932. His reputation grew during this time, and although his ballets were sometimes considered shocking (Adam and Eve, 1932) they were given tremendous depth by featuring complex characters portrayed by dancers with a clarity and sharpness unique to Tudor. His other notable ballets at this time were The Planets(1934) and The Descent of Hebe (1935), which continued his ascent.
In 1936 Tudor created Jardin aux Lilacs (Lilac Garden). This ballet was heralded a sensation, and permanently crowned Tudor as one of the most exciting choreographers of the time. Tudor broke the traditional ballet mode by putting dancers on stage in “civilian” clothing. Up until this time, dancers were usually sylphs, wilis, princesses, swans or other fanciful characters. His use of Edwardian period of dress was unheard of at the time. (Ironically, this ballet almost didn't make the stage, as Rambert was not exactly thrilled with this departure from tradition. In a famously told story, Tudor and others convinced Rambert the ballet had to be performed at least once to not harm Tudor’s future career, and after the ballet she could announce it would not be performed again. Sixteen curtain calls later, Rambert never made the announcement.)
Tudor, an avid film buff, was the first to use cinematic techniques in ballet. He used flashbacks, freezes and other cinematic devices to develop character in ways never done before. He also used every day upper body movements to complement traditional footwork
Lilac Garden changed the life of Antony Tudor and the world of ballet forever. Although his previous ballets were notable in their own right, Lilac Garden created a new, worldwide fervor. Lilac Garden went on to become one of Tudor’s signature ballets and is performed frequently to this day.
In 1937 Tudor followed up with Dark Elegies which, according to Sally Bliss, Trustee Emeritus of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, “became his greatest work. The rest of the ballet world was still primarily a place for fanciful creatures and worlds, while Dark Elegies presented the all too real grief of a parent for a lost child.”
Tudor continued working in a variety of mediums, including opera, musical theater, films and a new outlet: television. Although he never completely severed ties with Rambert, Tudor was increasingly frustrated with his lack of autonomy. In 1937 he created a partnership with American Agnes de Mille and the short-lived Dance Theater was born. Although they had some critical success, the company was never financially viable, perhaps due to their contrasting styles. Around this time Tudor started teaching and soon developed a cult-like following among dancers, even earning the nickname "The Jesus of British Grove.” British Grove was where Tudor took up residence, held classes while working on new ballets and honed his legendary sarcasm. Throughout this period in time, Tudor still dreamt of having his own company, a dream that would soon come true.
In 1938, he choreographed the shocking and witty Judgment of Paris, later included in the premiere of that dream, The London Ballet at Toynbee Hall. This new company, formed after the failed venture with his friend, Agnes de Mille, would clearly bear Tudor’s stamp. The London Ballet was located in a working class section of East London, similar to the neighborhood of Tudor’s childhood. Tudor had long rejected the notion of ballet as an elitist venture, and reveled in the opportunity to bring dance to ordinary people. The London Ballet accomplished this goal.
Gala Performance was also created for the premiere, and once again showed off Tudor’s sardonic wit. Throughout the first season, The London Ballet presented a range of the Tudor repertory as well as a new ballet, Soirée Musicale. Tudor had "presented a complete, unique world of real people seen through the eyes of one person: a vision as valid and individual as that of a great painter or writer or playwright who presents to the public a world which is clearly recognizable, but uniquely his". The season, as close to a one man show ever attempted in the history of British Ballet, was a great success and spurred Tudor to secure a bigger stage for the following season. A 10 week commitment to work with (American) Ballet Theater in New York changed all this and unexpectedly led Tudor to spend many years abroad.
In late 1939 Tudor was invited to stage his ballets for a new company in New York called “Ballet Theatre” ('American' was added in 1956). Old friend Agnes de Mille convinced founders Richard Pleasant and Lucia Chase that Tudor was worth the investment. Tudor accepted their offer, in hopes of raising funds for the debt ridden London Ballet. Accompanied by long time partner and collaborator, Hugh Laing, Tudor was able to sail on one of the last civilian ships out of England after the start of World War II (only because he had signed the Ballet Theatre contract before the start of the war). Due to passport difficulty, Tudor and Laing spent their first night in the United States as most immigrants did: on Ellis Island.
In 1940, shortly after joining Ballet Theatre, Tudor recreated Jardin aux Lilas, Dark Elegies and Judgment of Paris, all of which received glowing reviews from critics and the public alike. An offer of summer employment (and the war) unexpectedly extended Tudor’s residence with Ballet Theatre. This year also saw the first Tudor ballet created in America, the light-hearted Goya Pastoral. In 1941 he choreographed Time Table for Ballet Caravan (a predecessor to NYC Ballet) and recreated Gala Performance for Ballet Theatre, also well received.
Tudor's first American masterpiece took him over a year to complete. Ballet Theatre presented Pillar of Fire in 1942 and it became an immediate sensation, cementing Tudor as an undeniable force in the dance community. Agnes de Mille compared Tudor’s impact to that of Shakespeare, proclaiming the ballet as the greatest English work since Elizabethan times, praise echoed by many at the time.
Following this success Tudor choreographed The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet in 1943, which remains the only major ballet version of the Shakespearean classic presented in one act. Tudor famously announced to the premiere audience (dressed as his character, Tybalt) that the ballet was incomplete and invited them to return four days later to see the finished version. The audience received both versions well.
Tudor developed a reputation as a deliberate choreographer who took a painstaking amount of time in the creative process. The fact that he created Dim Lustre (1943) in less than two weeks was shocking. Despite mixed reviews, it strengthened Tudor’s growing reputation as a master of psychological work.
Continuing in that stream was 1945’s Undertow, a murder story in which Tudor became the first choreographer to deal with the psycho-sexual problems of the male. The ballet's violent subject shocked many in America. England, less puritanical than the U.S., received it much more kindly the following year.
In 1945 Tudor ventured into musical theatre, choreographing dance sequences for Hollywood Pinafore and Day Before Springto mixed reviews. While Tudor had always dabbled in other mediums, his main focus remained in ballet. In 1946 Tudor, who never loved the business part of dance, grudgingly accepted the role of Artistic Administrator for Ballet Theatre.
His next ballet, Shadow of the Wind (1948), was an unusual blending of cultures and music. After a summer at Jacobs Pillow and a brief stay in Sweden, Tudor returned to Ballet Theatre in 1950 and choreographed Nimbus. At the same time, he became director of the newly formed Metropolitan Opera Ballet, a cooperative with Ballet Theatre. While he choreographed several operas (including his most noteworthy, Acleste) during his association with The Met, he eventually gave that part of his job up to focus on teaching. Even while working as a choreographer for various companies, Tudor held the directorship of the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company and School off and on until 1963.
In 1951 Tudor left Ballet Theatre along with longtime collaborators Nora Kaye, Hugh Laing and Laing’s wife, Diana Adams, to join New York City Ballet. While at NYCB, Tudor choreographed Lady of Camellias (in which a retired Tudor made a surprise appearance) and La Gloire (1952). In 1953 Tudor created a student work, Exercise Piece, for the recently founded Juilliard School.
In 1954 Offenbach in the Underworld was created in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music using dancers from Catherine Littlefield’s Philadelphia Ballet Company, later staged in New York and all over the world.
Hail and Farewell (1959) was created for the first ever “Ballet Evening” at the Metropolitan Opera, something Tudor himself instituted. At the time Tudor thought he was going to retire from choreography and the ballet was rumored to be his farewell (as well as a tribute to the retiring Nora Kaye).
In 1960 Tudor created another student work, A Choreographer Comments (preserved on film by Juilliard) followed by Dance Studies (1961, Juilliard) and a piece for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet, Fandango (1963). In 1966 he choreographed Concerning Oracles (where he first worked with the future Trustee of the Antony Tudor Ballet Trust, Sally Brayley Bliss) and reconstructed Echoing of Trumpets at the third and final “Ballet Evening” before leaving the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School.
After some years abroad, Tudor was invited to apply for a grant from the recently formed National Endowment for the Arts. Tudor, once again influenced by Agnes de Mille, agreed to create a series of ballets for small companies and schools. The results of this project were three small works, Continuo, Cereus and Sunflowers which he created with students of the Juilliard School in 1971. When the project was completed, Tudor had money left over and stunned the NEA by sending the balance back. Tudor recognized many of his ballets were difficult for small companies to perform and also knew the realities facing these organizations. The parts for boys in Sunflowers required little technical expertise because he knew in smaller companies it was rare to have experienced males. This would be Tudor’s final contribution to Juilliard, as he left shortly afterwards and Juilliard temporarily dropped its classical ballet program to focus on modern dance. Eventually professional companies mounted these works as well, with Tudor himself setting Continuo for The Joffrey II Dancers.
Although Tudor reluctantly became the Associate Director of ABT in 1974, he would not choreograph a new ballet until 1975, when he created his final masterpiece, The Leaves are Fading. Tudor considered this piece his “autobiography” and it remains one of his most famous works. In 1978, perhaps under pressure to create a new ballet, Tudor choreographed his final ballet, Tiller in the Fields (not considered one of his best works).
Tudor stayed in New York much longer than his originally planned ten weeks, but his impact lasted beyond his lifetime. Tudor’s decision not only changed choreography and dance forever, it set him on course to become the world traveler he had always dreamed of being.